Are pregnant women being discriminated against at work more or less these days? We asked experts for their insights.

By Jen Dennis and Libby Ryan
Cultura/ Getty Images

In 2019, nearly 40 years after the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, we'd hope discrimination based on pregnancy would be nonexistent. But that's not the case. Each year, thousands of parents-to-be file workplace discrimination complaints—some even losing their jobs because of their pregnancies.

Data from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) website for pregnancy-related discrimination shows more than 30,000 complaints were filed with the agency from 2010 to 2018. And that number doesn't include cases filed with local Fair Employment Practices Agencies across the country. According to a review of the EEOC trip by the National Partnership for Women & Families, almost a third of charges for pregnancy discrimination between 2011 and 2015 were from women being fired.

But those numbers might not tell the whole story, says Sandy Girifalco, an employment law attorney and a partner at law firm Stradley Ronen Attorneys at Law. If you look beyond that 10-year time frame, the broader picture raises a few questions. The number of cases per year hasn't changed much over the past few years, but it does represent a rise of about 1,000 claims per year over cases that were filed annually before 2008 to 2009. And that's a big jump.

Why did that surge happen—and why have the numbers stayed high since? We asked a few experts for their insights.

We're better informed about discrimination.

"People are becoming more aware of their rights," says Martin Levy, president of human resources consulting firm Human Resources 4U. That increased awareness means that more employees are recognizing it, and taking action, when those rights are violated.

Pregnant women are often higher up the career ladder than they used to be.

It's ironic—the fact that pregnant women have better jobs when they become moms may make it more obvious to them when they're being discriminated against. Tom Spiggle, a lawyer and the author of the upcoming You're Pregnant? You're Fired: Protecting Mothers, Fathers, and Other Caregivers in the Workplace, notes that this may, in part, be the result of more women having babies later: "They're farther along in their careers, which means that the impact of discrimination is more clear to them. They can see more clearly the losses they are experiencing."

Fewer families can do without two salaries.

As more households rely on two incomes—and as more women become the primary breadwinners for their families—fewer families can afford to simply ignore the economic losses they face because of discriminatory behavior. That includes, of course, when jobs and the salaries they bring in are lost. But it also means that the financial deprivations that come from raises denied and promotions delayed have a financial impact that can't be overlooked. And that aspect of the economic repercussions of pregnancy discrimination may also play a part in the increase in claims.

A tough job market makes it harder to walk away.

"The economy has forced many people to pursue claims they may not have in the past," says Donna Galatas: CEO of The Galatas Group, an HR consultancy for small businesses in Frisco, Texas.

The fact that the spike happened near the lowest points of the current economic downturn can't be ignored. It may be that women who might have simply left a bad workplace for a gig in greener pastures simply don't have that option in a more sluggish job market.

As with any number or trend, there are many ways to interpret this one. On one side, there's the concern that this number has risen over the long term. This could be seen as evidence that things are bad or getting worse. On the other, we could read it as a sign that awareness of pregnancy rights in the workplace is on the rise. Either way, it remains a number worth watching for families now, and in the future.

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